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Renewed Interest in Food Irradiation - A Retrospective Analysis of Foodborne Outbreaks


The Centers for Control and Prevention (CDC) has demonstrated that implementation of food irradiation for eligible products over the period 2009 through 2020 would have potentially reduced the incidence of foodborne outbreaks caused by susceptible bacteria. In the retrospective CDC study, 482 foodborne outbreaks were examined with 155 attributed to a food product eligible for irradiation.  Chicken (34 percent of the eligible foods) and beef (20 percent) were the leading food products eligible for irradiation that were obviously contaminated at the time of purchase.  The CDC report noted, “ the illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths associated with outbreaks linked to irradiation-eligible food might have been prevented or reduced had those foods been irradiated.  Radiation treatment eliminates pathogenic microorganisms.”


During the 1980’s and 1990’s, food irradiation was promoted as a solution to foodborne infection caused by Salmonella, Campylobacter, E.coli (STEC) and Listeria.  Unfortunately, negative publicity and a reluctance to introduce the technology prevented adoption.  Isotopic irradiation using cobalt60 is suitable to destroy foodborne bacteria in bulk-packed dense food products.  Cobalt60 irradiation plants are expensive and depend on high utilization and throughput to offset fixed costs. With high demand and appropriate logistics, the cost of irradiation treatment is extremely low.  It is a matter of record that a high proportion of medical disposables are irradiated using cobalt60 in dedicated free-standing plants. 


Recently electron beam pasteurization has become available as a more practical alternative to isotopic irradiation.  Similar to hospital x-ray installations, electron beam units can be installed in poultry production and food packaging plants without the restraints and costs associated with isotopic irradiation.  Electron beam units can be switched on and off to comply with plant operation and are ideal for small food items including IQF portions and small packages of fruit and vegetables.


The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved a range of foods for irradiation including meat, poultry, shell eggs and spices, Unfortunately due to concerns over consumer resistance there has been minimal application other than for approximately one-third of imported spices.


For food irradiation to be accepted, an intensive program of consumer education will be required.  The major points to be conveyed are that nutritional content is not affected by the treatment, there is no residual radioactivity in the product, non-spore forming bacterial pathogens are inactivated if the process is carried out in conformity with FDA standards.

Attempts are being made to declare a wide range of Salmonella as adulterants in chicken and turkey products.  Given current pre-harvest and processing technology, it is impossible to reduce the probability of contamination to levels that would support existing production with standards approximating near-zero tolerance without an effective kill step.  Application of irradiation applying electron beam treatment of tray-pack or IQF products could be achieved at costs at or below one cent per lb.


If electron beam treatment is introduced, there will have to be complete transparency in labeling accompanied by promotion by federal agencies with assurances of safety and efficacy and above all endorsement by public health agencies and consumer groups.


Given that we are still contending with opposition against pasteurization of milk introduced over 150 years ago, obtaining acceptance of food irradiation, even applying electron beam treatment, analogous to x-rays will require a coordinated informational program.